This article reads Jacques Derrida's notion of the "supplement" alongside Georgina Kleege's influential work on blind access to the visual arts, in order to argue that audio description (AD) should be repositioned as a key cinematic feature rather than an access-driven afterthought. Analysis of instances of extradiegetic and intradiegetic audio description in films featuring blind protagonists reveals that AD can function to comment on, replicate or foreground the experience of the blind protagonist and/or the blind beholder. The most successful descriptions are those which are incorporated into the film from its inception, and which thus allow an enhanced viewing experience for both blind and non-blind filmgoers.
Audio description (AD) is defined as a "verbal commentary providing visual information for those unable to perceive it for themselves" (Fryer, An Introduction 1). AD can be either live or recorded and it is increasingly used in theatre, museum settings and live events as well as in television and cinema. 1 Although AD began as an assistive technology designed to allow blind people to access visual media, recent work in fields as diverse as sound science, translation studies, immersive technology and critical disability studies has elevated it to a creative response to the source material which has the power to enhance this material for both blind and non-blind people. By describing AD as a kind of "ekphrasis," Jay Dolmage inscribes it within the ancient Homeric tradition of image/text relationships. For him, audio description is "an artistic process" which should be understood as "adding artistic and rhetorical value, not simply transposing or distilling meanings" (141). Mara Mills agrees, and adds that through its presence within the film which it is simultaneously describing and thus also changing, "audio description […] often merges with and transforms the thing-described." Here, Mills is repositioning audio description as an example of "translation overlay" which demonstrates the "growing pervasiveness of description as a mode of human and machine interaction." In her critique of existing AD offerings, Georgina Kleege takes the interventions of Dolmage and Mills to their logical conclusion by calling for a radical re-thinking of access provision via "innovations that could elevate audio description to the status of a new literary and interpretive genre that can serve all audiences of visual culture" (More Than Meets 12).
Louise Fryer's insistence that AD can give blind beholders a more entertaining and immersive experience than that of their non-AD-using sighted peers (An Introduction 6) indeed suggests that AD is much more than merely an additional assistive aid to understanding, and that sighted audiences are missing out by not using it. For blind users, as well as any non-blind users who care to try it, AD represents a crucial component of the film which both transforms and enhances the cinematic experience. Yet directors and producers have been slow to embrace the creative potential of the AD track. AD is almost always added after a film has been completed; it is not routinely integrated into the design of a film but expected to fit into gaps left in an already finished product. 2 Consequently, it is typically provided by a specialist company who do not necessarily share, or perhaps even understand, the director's artistic vision. Because it is not seen as part of a film's aesthetic, it is not taken seriously as an artistic and creative element. But, as Kleege and Wallin point out, the choices which an audio describer is forced to make are bound to transform AD from straight translation into an interpretative act: "This filtering and prioritizing is thus actually an unavoidably subjective perspective that renders the describer into an interlocutor who shares her own interpretations and values." Indeed, for a blind beholder, audio description is just as much a part of the experience of the film as other elements of its cinematography. According to Kleege and Wallin: "this is because the act of describing is itself an aesthetic performance that generates its own meanings." The guidelines which exist for the production of AD fail to properly acknowledge its creative potential. Rather than encouraging audio describers to contribute to the film's aesthetic, the instructions demand a neutral description which is devoid of any subjectivity. In addition, in a move which, according to Kleege, promotes "an image of blind people as less interested in or even aware of the artifice of film" (More Than Meets 101), describers are discouraged from deploying cinematographic vocabulary or referring to particular shots or effects. AD thus occupies an apparently paradoxical position: it is at once additional to a completed work of art and yet it becomes an integral part of this work of art by its very addition to it. Like Jacques Derrida's concept of the "supplement," audio description both adds something to the original and always also becomes part of the work of art that it is thus completing by its very presence (208). If we follow Derrida's logic, we understand that the addition of AD to a film transforms the audio-described version of the film into the completed version by revealing that the pre-audio-described version is unfinished precisely because it lacks the AD which thus completes it.
When read together, Derrida's concept of the "supplement" and Kleege and Wallin's insistence that audio descriptions "produce understandings of the artwork that are in tandem and dialogue with the work's other components" invite us to take AD as seriously as we would any other element of a film. In response to this invitation, this article offers a critical analysis of four examples of AD taken from films about blindness. I have chosen to focus on these films because they represent a range of genres and exhibit various attitudes to blindness. Ruth Grimberg's Across Still Water (2014) and Nicki Chandris's Second Sight (2016) are short British documentaries which show male protagonists living with and discussing their blindness. The former positions blindness largely as a problem to be overcome whereas the latter is a more celebratory exploration of blindness's creative potential. Michel Boujenah's Heartstrings (2016) and Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Amélie (2001) are mainstream French romantic comedies which both subscribe to a range of negative stereotypes of blindness. Filmic depictions of blindness such as these are particularly pertinent to our discussion because the blind characters within them have as much need of AD as the blind beholders of them. In addition, in these films, blind and non-blind ways of seeing are placed in conflict when sighted describers give visual representations of filmic depictions of blindness to an audience whose non-normative ways of not seeing arguably give them a better understanding of blindness (and sightedness) than that of either the sighted describer or filmmaker. In her bitingly sarcastic analysis of Hollywood's resoundingly negative representations of blind characters in Sight Unseen, Kleege imagines how such films' audio-describers would feel if they were required to describe such pitiful portrayals of pathetic blind people to a blind movie-goer. "At what point," she asks, "would the writers responsible for these descriptions, or the announcers who read them, begin to gag on their words?" (Sight Unseen 65). Some of the films I have chosen portray blindness in more positive ways than the Hollywood classics discussed by Kleege. But in all four films we find a productive tension between AD and the depiction of blindness which will allow us to explore what happens when AD is treated with the same critical attention as the more frequently discussed elements of a film.
Across Still Water
When we organized the 2015 Blind Creations conference and micro-arts festival, Vanessa Warne and I made the unusual decision to screen the AD version of Ruth Grimberg's 2014 short documentary about sight loss, Across Still Water (acrossstillwater.com/) for the whole audience rather than marginalising blind beholders by asking them to listen to the AD track through headphones. 3 By privileging the AD version of the film in this way, this screening reversed ocularcentric understandings of the AD / non-AD hierarchy by enacting Derrida's assertion that the very presence of a supplement highlights a previously unnoticed lack in the supplemented original. Instead of presenting the non-AD version as the definitive version of the film which was supplemented by the AD version, this reversal posits the AD version as the complete version. By encouraging both blind and non-blind beholders to engage critically with the film's AD track, this screening marked a transformative moment when AD became an integral part of the (non-blind) cinema experience. Through this screening, the conference repositioned AD as cinematic art. This shift in status became clear during the post-screening question and answer session with the film's director. Rather than focusing on traditionally 'sighted' aspects of the cinematography such as the atmospheric shots of the river bank at dusk or how the film's treatment of light and dark foreshadows the protagonist's impending blindness, blind beholders wanted to talk about the effectiveness of the AD in capturing the reality of life with the degenerative eye disease retinitis pigmentosa. They were accompanied in this critical endeavour by non-blind beholders who highlighted moments when the AD track did not adequately capture in words what the film was showing.
One of the main themes of the film is how its protagonist John deals with his transition from sighted person to blind person. After a scene in which he resists his mother's attempts to convince him to learn how to use a white cane, John meets a newly-guide-dog-owning acquaintance, Ishmael, in a pub. As Ishmael urges John to better prepare for the inevitable onset of blindness, the camera cuts to a shot of a neatly folded white cane on a table beside drinks and a pair of dark glasses. This shot is intriguing for several reasons. Firstly, the scene makes no sense within the film's narrative because the cane shown cannot belong to either of the scene's characters. We learnt in the previous scene that John has not yet undertaken the training he needs to be allowed to use a cane. And a blind guide-dog user like Ishmael would not use a guide dog and a cane at the same time. The incongruity of the cane is further demonstrated by its absence from the rest of the scene: when the pub table appears in a longer shot of the two men, the white cane has disappeared, although the drinks and dark glasses remain. Rather than being an integral part of the film's plot then, the white cane - which is importantly folded rather than extended ready for use – has been added by the film's director as a visual symbol of the difference between the independent and fully-mobility-trained Ishmael and the more reluctant John. Most significantly, this intriguing shot of the cane is not mentioned in the film's AD. By deciding to deny blind beholders access to the white cane's symbolic function in this scene, the describer is enacting precisely the kind of discrimination against blind people that John is afraid of experiencing. John is reluctant to use a white cane because he is afraid of being marginalised by his non-blind peers. And yet the describer shows that John's fears are justified by marginalising blind beholders through their exclusion from an understanding of the cane's symbolic function in this scene. That the painful irony of this exclusion from meaning only becomes apparent to blind beholders when their non-blind peers are also given access to the AD soundtrack is powerful evidence that AD works best when it is understood as a collaborative venture produced in consultation with both blind and non-blind users. 4
As well as symbolising the gulf between John's and Ishmael's attitudes to their blindness, the folded white cane also functions as an emblem of the mismatch between the visual elements of the film and its AD soundtrack. Its misguided inclusion in the shot reminds us of filmmakers' mistaken assumption that AD is an artistically unimportant addition to a film. Like the white cane in this shot, AD is a misunderstood and misrepresented element of film production. The passionate discussion of AD during the question and answer session took the film's director by surprise. She had exerted no control over the AD script because she did not understand its centrality in the (blind) viewing experience. Audience reactions to Across Still Water clearly showed that directorial involvement is crucial to the AD production process. Every word uttered by the describer carries a complex set of meanings which may or may not match the meanings generated by on-screen images. In addition, what a describer decides to omit from their description is just as telling as what she or he includes. Most importantly, this inclusive discussion of AD revealed that even though AD is usually added after the film has been completed, often without the creative input of the director, audiences who use it consider it to be just as much as part of the film's cinematography as more traditionally filmic elements such as soundtrack and camera angles.
Audio description is particularly important in films about blind people because it is crucial that blind people have access to films about their own experiences. But the presence of an AD track in films depicting blindness threatens the potential identification between blind beholder and blind subject. When AD is extradiegetic, that is, external to the film itself and thus heard by viewers but not by characters, its presence allows the blind beholder to know more about the situation than the blind character who is part of the action. A scene from another recent documentary about blindness, Nicki Chandris's 2016 Second Sight, highlights the paradox of extradiegetic AD. In her work Chandris uses her exploration of the artistic practices of blind sculptor David Johnson, who is a contributor to this special issue, to consider how we might express a blind person's experience of the visual and the non-visual in the visual medium of film. In one scene, David sits alone eating lunch on a bench in an urban setting. An unpleasant, and aurally unidentifiable squeaking noise is heard on the film soundtrack. After a second or two, the camera pans left away from David and shows the viewer that an elderly man is pushing a walking frame along an uneven pavement. The film's AD script describes the scene as follows: "Outside he sits on a metal bench with a back rest fanned like a peacock's tail, eating fish & chips from newspaper. Nearby, a man pushes a Zimmer frame on wheels, David listens as it squeaks along…" 5 (Fryer "Second Sight").
This scene is important to the film because it demonstrates that blindness is often characterized by uncertainty. Whilst sighted viewers, and blind AD users, know where the unfamiliar sound is coming from, David remains unsure. Sighted viewers can see that David is puzzled by the noise but this is not made clear to blind beholders. Earlier in the film, a shot of David using his cane to navigate around street furniture is accompanied by his voice explaining that "Part of being blind is dealing with uncertainty … your world is full of uncertainty" (Second Sight). By showing sighted viewers the source of the unfamiliar noise, the film illustrates David's uncertainty without allowing beholders to experience it for themselves. Blind AD users are empowered as they are temporarily granted access to the apparent certainty of the sighted world. But this access to the visual comes at a cost. By giving the blind beholder visual information unavailable to the blind character, the AD track creates a situation of dramatic irony where the blind beholder has more knowledge than the blind character him or herself. Instead of identifying with the blind character, the blind beholder is thus placed into a hierarchical relationship with them whereby the certainty granted by the AD script gives blind beholders access to the power traditionally associated with visual perception. As David Bolt has shown, "visual perception is a form of power that, like any other, may be compared, abused, and thus utilized as a form of control" (96). Because the blind subject of the film cannot tell when they are being looked at, or by whom, they are always the object of what Bolt has called the "unseen gaze," a gaze which traps them in a state of vulnerable uncertainty (96-7). By temporarily giving the blind AD user access to the power exerted by the "unseen gazer," Second Sight's AD script cleverly allows the blind beholder to understand how certainty might feel. But this temporary empowerment also reveals to the blind AD user that sighted people can exert power over blind people through their access to the knowledge that apparently comes with sight. To fully experience the visual elements of the film, the blind beholder must temporarily relinquish their blind identity and thus their identification with David, in order to identify instead with the sighted viewer. The uncertainty which characterized David's experience of blindness becomes a distant memory for the AD user who is therefore no longer able to fully share in David's sense of the world. This temporary empowerment is thus both different from, but also dependant on, David's uncertainty because it is only possible when the sighted spectator's knowledge is juxtaposed with David's lack of knowledge. Films about blindness which include extradiegetic AD risk placing blind beholders in a potentially untenable position. By asking blind beholders both to identify with the blind subject through their shared experience of blindness, and to relinquish this identification through the temporary acquisition of visual information, audio described films about blindness are thus in danger of reasserting the importance of sight even as they show – through the very existence of AD – that blindness should not and does not prevent equal access to information.
Heartstrings (Le cur en braille)
The untenable position of the blind beholder becomes even more fraught with difficulty when the film they are watching subscribes to the negative metanarrative of blindness which the very existence of AD would seem to call into question. Unlike Across Still Water and Second Sight which both provide subtle, sensitive and thought-provoking accounts of life as a partially or fully blind person, Michel Boujenah's 2016 romantic comedy Heartstrings is a dangerously ocularcentric vision of a world which still imagines blindness as a wholly undesirable, indeed tragic, affliction. Like John in Across Still Water, the film's protagonist, twelve-year-old Marie, is losing her sight. And like him she is reluctant to abandon her sighted life and embrace her blindness. Marie goes to great lengths to hide her increasing blindness from classmates, teachers, parents and even her ophthalmologist, and adopts many of the strategies for "passing" as sighted discussed by Cathy Kudlick and Stephen Kuusisto in their memoirs. But unlike these stalwarts of blindness studies, Marie is never ready to accept her blind identity. She will not wear her glasses, refuses to go to a school for blind children, and is reluctant to accept formal help of any kind. The film's narrative supports Marie in her refusal by contrasting her parents' decision to place her in an institution with her dream to study the cello at the conservatoire. In the film's heart-warming final scenes, her parents and teachers realise their mistake as Marie uses her extraordinary musical talent to triumph over her adversity. As the screen goes black to signify her descent into blindness, the audience understands that she has earnt her place at music school despite her disability. Heartstrings is such an irretrievably offensive portrayal of blindness that its extradiegetic AD track can do nothing to redeem it. Indeed, in this case, the inclusion of AD sits uneasily with the film's anti-blindness message. It seems counterintuitive to invite blind beholders to watch a film which has nothing positive to say about blindness.
Marie's refusal to accept her blindness comes, at least in part, from her teachers' reliance on visual ways of conveying and eliciting information. Marie is expected to be able to read maths questions and quotations from the blackboard and no effort is made by the school to provide her with material in alternative formats when she can no longer achieve this. When this kind of visual learning becomes impossible for her, she must move out of the mainstream system to a specialist institution. Despite the film's insistence that Marie's continued integration into mainstream education is achievable only as a short-term solution through deceit and sleight of hand, one scene unexpectedly demonstrates the pedagogic benefits of the kind of collaborative and learner-centred audio description explored by Kleege and Wallin.
Marie's class are taken to visit an art gallery and asked to produce their own versions of a well-known Old Master. Marie cannot see the painting in question and because the camera focuses on her expression as she struggles to make sense of the blurry image in front of her, the beholder has no visual access to the picture either. As Marie asks her friend Victor about the painting, he provides a collaborative description of it which helps both Marie, and the beholder, work out which famous French painting she is supposed to be copying. After one particularly helpful piece of information, that the woman in the painting is carrying a French flag, Marie's excellent general knowledge allows her – and probably some beholders – to understand which work she is meant to be looking at. She produces an impressionistic sketch of it which she passes off as a "cubist" rendition, as if Cezanne had done a compressed version of Delacroix, and the teacher seems satisfied. It is only at the end of the scene that the camera pans out to show the painting the children have been drawing. Most sighted people will recognise Eugène Delacroix's famous Liberty Leading the People (La Liberté guidant le peuple ), which is shown to us without being named. The audio describer is faced with a difficult decision at this point. Should she echo the director's decision and describe the painting without naming it, hoping that the blind beholder will know enough about nineteenth-century French art history to work out, as Marie does, which painting is on display? Or should she provide the key piece of information denied the sighted viewer and simply name the painting without describing it, and trust that the blind beholder has enough knowledge to recognise the painting from its title? After all, this is clearly a painting that French children study at school, although given the gulf between sighted and blind education illustrated in the film, it is by no means guaranteed that blind children will be given audio-described access to it. The audio describer in fact chooses the second option and names the picture without providing further description of it. In so doing, she ensures that the blind beholder "can enjoy the same warmth of recognition as the sighted audience" (Fryer, An Introduction 108) whilst avoiding lengthy description which would leak out into the next scene. This choice works because the blind beholder is not completely deprived of descriptive information about the painting. The collaborative audio description undertaken earlier in the scene by Victor is an important example of intradiegetic description, whereby a character within the film provides a description for another character. Unlike extradiegetic audio description, this kind of description is available to both blind and non-blind beholders. It is not added to the film but is an integral part of it, and thus part of the director's artistic choices. For all its shortcomings, Heartstrings is worth mentioning because it shows how intradiegetic AD such as that provided by Victor can benefit both the blind and the non-blind beholder. If this kind of description were provided throughout a film it would remove the need for extradiegetic AD altogether. Intradiegetic AD avoids many of the technical, artistic and ethical issues associated with extradiegetic audio description, although as we shall see in our final example, it is not without problems of its own.
Amélie (Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amélie Poulain)
Jean-Pierre Jeunet's 2001 blockbuster Amélie provides one of French cinema's most important examples of intradiegetic audio description. After deciding to devote her life to helping others, Amélie guides a blind man across a busy road. Rather than simply depositing him on the other side, Amélie whisks him away down the street, providing a quirky, fast-paced account of what she sees as she does so. It is easy to criticize both Jeunet's depiction of blindness and Amélie's response to it in this scene. Here we are shown a passive, anonymous and inarticulate blind man who seems pathetically grateful for Amélie's help. 6 He is left speechless with joy even though Amélie has not been of any practical use at all. She has neither introduced herself nor asked him where he would like to go. She does not offer to help him buy any of the tempting food she describes to him and does not even bother to grab a piece of melon for him to taste. Yet despite these significant shortcomings, Amélie's intradiegetic AD demonstrates what can happen when AD is woven into the fabric of the film. Amélie was made before AD became widely available and does not have its own AD track. If it did, the describer would have no need to intervene in this episode. All the information the blind beholder needs, apart perhaps from the blind man's ecstatic smile, is contained in Amélie's words. Jeunet's shots of the various things Amélie describes do not contain supplementary information: they are the visual equivalent of her words and as such are superfluous to our understanding of the scene. In this episode, a blind beholder of the film is thus given as much information as both the film's blind character and the film's non-blind beholders. The distance which sometimes separates blind and non-blind filmic experience is collapsed as both kinds of cinema-goer share an experience on equal terms. And like Marie's experience with Delacroix's painting, the fact that this scene is part of the film itself, rather than a later addition to it, ensures that the blind beholder's experience of the film is anchored within it as an authentic part of the director's creative vision.
What is clear above all from this analysis is that far from being an additional feature, AD is an integral part of the filmic experience of all its users, whether this is intended or taken into account by the film's creative team or not. In my discussion of extradiegetic AD, I showed how the examples from Across Still Water and Second Sight suggest that the describers' decisions to include or exclude visual clues provided by the filmmaker can be used as a device to replicate the experience of the blind protagonist and / or beholder. The examples from Heartstrings and Amélie, on the other hand, show that intradiegetic AD is a particularly effective way of incorporating non-visual access into the film during its creation. At the moment, this kind of description is driven by the presence of blind characters within the film. I hope that by showing that the inclusion of AD has a profound effect on the viewing experience of both blind and non-blind beholders, this article will encourage producers, directors and funders to fully value and explore its artistic and creative benefits.
- Across Still Water. Directed by Ruth Grimberg, Film London, 2014.
- Bolt, David. The Metanarrative of Blindness: A Re-reading of Twentieth-Century Anglophone Writing. U of Michigan P, 2014.
- Dancer in the Dark. Directed by Lars von Trier, Zentropa, 2000.
- Derrida, Jacques. De la grammatologie. Les éditions de Minuit, 1967.
- Dolmage, Jay. Disability Rhetoric. Syracuse U P, 2013.
- Fryer, Louise. An Introduction to Audio Description: A Practical Guide. Routledge, 2016.
- ---. "Second Sight." 2017. Script.
- Keun, Irmgard. The Artificial Silk Girl. Translated by Kathie von Ankum, Other Press, 2002.
- Kleege, Georgina. More than Meets the Eye What Blindness Brings to Art. Oxford U P, 2018. https://doi.org/10.1093/oso/9780190604356.001.0001
- ---. Sight Unseen. Yale U P, 1999.
- Kleege, Georgina and Scott Wallin. "Audio Description as a Pedagogical Tool." Disability Studies Quarterly, vol. 35, no. 2, 2015. https://doi.org/10.18061/dsq.v35i2.4622
- Kudlick, Cathy. "Black Bike, White Cane: Nonstandard Deviations of a Special Self." Disability Studies Quarterly, vol. 31, no. 1, 2011. https://doi.org/10.18061/dsq.v31i1.1373
- Kuusisto, Stephen. Eavesdropping: A Life by Ear. W. W. Norton, 2006.
- Le Coeur en Braille. Directed by Michel Boujenah, Gaumont, 2016.
- Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amélie Poulain. Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Momentum Pictures, 2001.
- Mills, Mara. "Listening to Images: Audio Description, the Translation Overlay, and Image Retrieval." The Cine-Files, vol. 8, Spring 2015, www.thecine-files.com/listening-to-images-audio-description-the-translation-overlay-and-image-retrieval/.
- Radiance. Directed by Naomi Kawase, MK2 Films, et al., 2017.
- Second Sight. Directed by Nicki Chandris, National Film and Television School, 2016.
The ADLab and ADLabPro projects have produced a wealth of useful resources which testify to the increasing importance of audio description. See www.adlabproject.eu/.
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One exception to this rule is Lars von Trier's 2000 film Dancer in the Dark where the audio description is carefully designed to fit with the film's dialogue and musical soundtrack. Many thanks to Alexandra Tacke for reminding me of this film.
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Further details and recordings from the Blind Creations event can be found here: blindcreations.blogspot.com/.
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Intriguingly, the plot of Naomi Kawase's 2017 film Radiance takes the tensions created by a sighted-blind co-creation of a film's AD script as its main focus. Many thanks to Alexandra Tacke for alerting me to this film.
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The film's AD script was written by Louise Fryer, a contributor to this special issue, and was delivered by her during a screening of the documentary at Tate Modern, London on 18 Jan. 2017. Many thanks to Louise for sharing the script with me.
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This episode is in fact an indirect citation of the famous scene from Irmgard Keun's 1932 novel The Artificial Silk Girl where the eponymous heroine describes the wonder of the busy Berlin streets to her blind neighbour. Many thanks to Alexandra Tacke for sharing this information with me.
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